The Chargers won their third straight division title by finishing 8-8, becoming the first team to go from 4-8 to the playoffs by routing the Denver Broncos 52-21 in the Ed Hochuli Bowl on Sunday night.
"This is obviously history in they way we trailed the division and now won it," Rivers said after San Diego's fourth straight win -- and 14th straight in the month of December. "We all had the expectations to get here. We obviously went a different route than we thought we would. But we're here."
It really, truly wasn't the way anyone thought the talented Chargers would get to January, considering they were a popular preseason pick to make it to the Super Bowl.
Mission Valley turned into Mediocre Valley as the Chargers became the first team to win a division at 8-8 since the Cleveland Browns did it in 1985. They're the ninth team overall to make it to the playoffs at 8-8; only two of the previous teams to do it managed to win a game in the playoffs.
Tomlinson, who didn't return after straining a groin muscle in the third quarter, had his first three-touchdown game of the season. Rivers threw his 33rd and 34th touchdown passes to break Hall of Famer Dan Fouts' 1981 team single-season record.
"It's a tribute to the guys who kept believing and kept fighting," said Tomlinson, who plans to have an MRI exam on Monday. "Very prideful guys in that locker room. And at the point we were 4-8, we didn't know what was going to happen with Denver, but for us it was about how were we going to finish."
Said Rivers: "Chances were slim, but we kept playing hard and fighting just for us to salvage whatever we could salvage."
Denver (8-8) completed a monumental collapse, becoming the first team since division play began in 1967 to miss the playoffs after having a three-game lead with three weeks to go. Needing just one win to wrap up the division, the Broncos lost at Carolina, at home to Buffalo and then to the Chargers.
"Obviously it's not the same football team that started the year," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said of a team that started 3-0.
"It was kind of frustrating to see that three-game lead come down to this and see San Diego kind of take off on us," Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall said. "But, hey, that's football.
"We did have to score," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "They punted once, I think. It puts a lot of pressure on us."
The Chargers were 5-1 in the division but 3-7 outside it, and had zero wins against playoff teams. San Diego will host Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night. San Diego upset the Colts in the playoffs last year, but Indy won 23-20 in San Diego on Nov. 23.
Denver won the first meeting between the increasingly bitter rivals on Sept. 14 with some last-minute help from referee Ed Hochuli. When the ball slipped from Jay Cutler's grasp and was recovered by Chargers inside linebacker Tim Dobbins, Hochuli ruled it an incomplete pass instead of a fumble. Hochuli later acknowledged his decision was wrong. However, by rule, the call could not be changed and Denver kept the ball. The Broncos scored on fourth down, followed by the winning 2-point conversion.
On Sunday night, the Chargers looked like world-beaters and Tomlinson was far more animated than at any point of the worst year of his otherwise brilliant career.
After he scored on a 14-yard run midway through the third quarter, L.T. celebrated with his teammates and then high-stepped across the field to the bench.
San Diego scored twice in 18 seconds midway through the third quarter. Rivers threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to speedy Darren Sproles to make it 31-13. Defensive end Luis Castillo intercepted Cutler's deflected pass on the first play of the ensuing Denver drive, and Tomlinson then scored on his 14-yard run.
Tomlinson wasn't sure when he hurt his groin and said it didn't bother him on his final TD run.
"I don't know how bad it is," he said. "I'm not going to jump to conclusions or say anything more about it because I really don't know at this point."
San Diego set a team record with 289 rushing yards.
"We physically beat the hell out of them. I can't say it any other way," Pro Bowl left guard Kris Dielman said.
Tomlinson used a nice spin move to score on a 4-yard run late in the second quarter, adding to the 1-yard scoring run he had in the first period.
Sproles also scored on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter. He finished with 115 yards on 14 carries. Tomlinson had 96 yards on 14 carries.
Rivers picked apart Denver's porous secondary and also threw two blocks on reverses by wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson's diving catch of a 37-yard pass helped set up L.T.'s first TD run, and Rivers threw a 34-yarder to Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates on a drive capped by a 12-yard scoring pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna early in the second quarter.
San Diego rookie Jacob Hester scored on a 4-yard run late in the game.
"It's obviously very disappointing," Shanahan said. "I give San Diego credit. They really picked us apart."
Gates sprained an ankle and didn't come back. Coach Norv Turner said Tomlinson and Gates could have returned, but the team wanted to be conservative with them. ... Rivers was 15-of-20 for 207 yards.
- John Parry